February 12, 2014

Professors: Benefits of MOOCs Outweigh Risks at Cornell

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During a University Faculty Senate Meeting held in the Hollis E. Cornell Auditorium on Wednesday, professors debated the benefits and financial concerns associated with expanding Cornell’s current MOOC offerings.

MOOCs, massive online open courses that the University began to offer in February, differ from traditional classes in that they are online, shorter than a semester and open to the public, according to a previous Sun article.

The Distance Learning Committee drafted a report on the future of MOOCs at Cornell, which served as the base of conversation at the meeting.“We are not in the business of money. We are in the business of education — and this is education.” — Joseph Burns Ph.D. ’66

Prof. Richard Miller, philosophy, a member of the DLC, said the report includes policy recommendations for Cornell and outlines controversies about the impending transformation of higher education due to MOOCs and other online learning programs.

According to Miller, the committee encourages expanding Cornell’s online education program in both scope and content.The committee also suggests that the University continue to not grant credit to on-campus students for MOOCs and to weigh the impact of licensing MOOCs for credit at other colleges and universities. In addition it recommends that the University should continue to expand support for distance learning, or teaching students who are not physically present in a traditional setting, such as a classroom.

The report primarily references sites like edX, the host of the four Cornell programs and a non-profit that offers MOOCs to the public.

Miller said Cornell should proceed “strategically and carefully” in considering whether to renew Cornell’s two-year contract with edX and in deciding how many more MOOCs to produce.

Faculty expressed concern over Cornell’s production of MOOCs when asking questions to a panel consisting of Miller, Prof. David Delchamps, electrical and computer engineering and Prof. Michael Fontaine, classics.

University faculty also said that finding a balance between MOOCs and a classical Cornell education, and that the tendency for MOOCs to be geared towards math and science courses instead of humanities ones troubled them.

Faculty also questioned the program’s profit potential, since the University offers MOOCs free of charge.

MOOCs — which cost around $70,000 in non-faculty costs and take an estimated 200-300 hours to produce — are costly because of the high quality of production, including elaborate formatting and interactive designs intended to increase audience engagement, according to Miller.

Joseph Burns Ph.D. ’66, dean of University Faculty, responded to concerns by saying “we are not in the business of money. We are in the business of education — and this is education.”

The panel noted that MOOCs will grant the University visibility in an expanding educational field, while giving prospective students a taste of a Cornell education.

Miller echoed Burns’ sentiments, emphasizing the non-financial endeavors of MOOCs.

“We hope that the report will stimulate discussion at Cornell in which the creativity and knowledge of the faculty and administration will add to the benefits and mitigate any harmful side-effects of the entry of the online revolution into higher education,” Miller said.